Continuing an Air Force career - hope after a breast cancer diagnosis

  • Published
  • By Shireen Bedi
  • Air Force Surgeon General Public Affairs
The pink ribbon that symbolizes National Breast Cancer Awareness might be seen as a somber image, but it also represents hope and the many survivors. As awareness, support, and research funding have increased, more and more women are surviving breast cancer and returning to their careers.

“Once the shock of a breast cancer diagnosis subsides, many patients are happy to learn that it is not always a career-ending diagnosis,” said Maj. Daniel Choi, a surgical oncologist based at Travis Air Force Base, Calif. “In the Air Force, many breast cancer survivors return to active duty and go on to complete their careers on their own terms.”

A strong focus on breast cancer research in recent decades has led to a better understanding of breast cancer, improved, focused care and more positive outcomes. As researchers and physicians continue to learn more about breast cancer, it is vital that all women are aware of their risk and how they can best lead a normal, active life after treatment

 Breast cancer affects about 1 out of 8, or 12 percent of American women. Of that 12 percent, 1 out of 4 will die of breast cancer.

While the exact causes of breast cancer are unknown, there are risks that could increase a woman’s chances of the disease. The risk increases in older women, and, in some studies, is higher among those who have poor diets and do not exercise. The risk also increases if women have been exposed to radiation when they were younger, even as children, being treated for other cancers.

Family history can also increase someone’s chance of breast cancer, especially when a close blood relative like a mother or sister has been diagnosed.

“Just because a woman does not have a family history of breast cancer, does not mean she will never get it,” warns Choi. “I hear patients say, ‘Breast cancer doesn’t run in my family-- I can’t believe I have it.’ But about 80 to 85 percent of breast cancer cases occur in women with no significant family history.”

Another misconception about breast cancer risk centers on one of the breast cancer genes, the BRCA gene. While medical and social advancements have made it easier for women to get tested for the gene, not all women with breast cancer necessarily have BRCA mutations and not all women with BRCA mutations develop breast cancer.

“Only about 10 percent of all breast cancer cases – or even fewer – is related to the BRCA gene,” said Choi.

These days, most women diagnosed with breast cancer do not show symptoms of the disease.

“This is good news because that means that most breast cancer is being detected much earlier,” said Choi. “We attribute this to increased screening, which catches abnormalities before signs and symptoms emerge.”

In addition, research has also allowed for improved, and more focused treatment options.

“We now know a lot more about the natural biology of breast cancer than we do many other types of cancer,” said Choi. “This means that women have better treatment options.”

Treatment usually starts with a biopsy to confirm that the patient has breast cancer. Then, depending on how extensive the cancer is, surgery to remove the cancer is often the next step. Sometimes patients might require chemotherapy and possibly some radiation. If necessary, endocrine therapy via a pill is recommended.

“I tell my patients that treatment is a long-term project,” said Choi. “For most women treatment is really intensive for at least the first year. After time, it becomes less burdensome and more tolerable.”

Due to early detection and targeted treatment options, women are getting a better prognosis.  As researchers learn more about different types of breast cancer that exist, patients are able to receive a better outcome and can lead active lives after treatment. 

This improved prognosis also means that women in the Air Force can remain on active duty even after treatment. While breast cancer can be varied for different women, most breast cancer is treatable.

Choi often recommends that breast cancer survivors return to their normal routine as soon as possible. For example, some research shows that women who go back to their exercise routine after breast cancer surgery actually recover better.

While breast cancer does not necessarily signal the end of one’s Air Force career, it can still take a big emotional and physical toll on the patient.  Fortunately, the Air Force is equipped with a substantial support network to help those affected by breast cancer.

“My active duty patients have found their leadership to be very supportive,” said Choi. “They have not felt isolated or vulnerable because of their breast cancer.”

Several of the larger military treatment facilities have services available for various treatment options as well as survivorship counsel. Additionally, many Air Force military treatment facilities partner with the American Cancer Society to provide additional support and care.

The key factor in improved breast cancer survivorship is screening. According to many experts, the recommended age that most women should get checked is by age 40.

Find more information on screening, treatment, and support at